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Art Callaham: Uncle Bruce was mean, mighty with a bayonet

March 17, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

Although it’s not Veterans Day or Memorial Day, it’s a good day to remember our veterans and our freedoms. Although we just called him Bruce, Robert Bruce Allen was my great uncle (on my mother’s side) and the meanest man in the world.

Bruce was married to my grandmother’s youngest sister, Ann Hedrick, who happened to be one of (I put my grandmother and my mother in the same category) the nicest women in the world.

Confusing, sure it was, even in the day — the meanest man married to the nicest woman. How’d that happen?  

If Uncle Bruce was not the meanest man in the world, then perhaps we could write this one off to a big case of opposites attract. However, when I was growing up, there was no evidence of even the faintest attraction. Uncle Bruce and Aunt Ann just coexisted in generally the same space and there was a marriage license to at least prove the union.

By the way, Uncle Bruce was a Marine — you know, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” I really suspect he was a good Marine, enlisted in 1917 when President Wilson finally decided the United States needed to be involved on the world stage. Bruce went to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

In June of 1917, Bruce, a member of the 5th Regiment of Marines, departed for France, arriving several weeks later. Training was conducted, and finally the 5th was deployed, initially near Armentieres and later along the front in the Chateau Thierry/Belleau Wood area. 

Bruce was lightly wounded (no evacuation to Paris or a field hospital) near Belleau Wood. Finally, the 5th was assigned as part of the American forces conducting the final Meuse-Argonne offensive in late October and early November 1918.

Bruce went “over the top” on several raids between Nov. 1 and 10, and according to some who served with him, acquitted himself in a heroic manner. There were even some medals, but Bruce never talked about them and didn’t share war stories with me or anyone else I knew.

All anyone ever said about Bruce’s service in the war was “he was mighty good in the enemy’s trench with a bayonet.” When I knew him, later in his life, he was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and just about that broad. I guess in his youth he was the same height, and I always pictured him as a bit rotund.  Even just before he died, Robert Bruce Allen was as strong as an ox, so I’m sure the stories about him “in a trench” were probably true.

Not an educated man (he might have gone to school through the fifth or sixth grade), he could read and write and had an affinity for math. Uncle Bruce was a farmer and orchardist, who owned a “truck stop” and a large “produce stand.” The truck stop and produce stand were across the road from my home.

I remember him selling peaches for 8 cents each to customers who didn’t want a peck or a bushel. Bruce would say things like, “You want eight peaches? Well, eight eights is 88 (cents); but take ’em away for 76 (cents).”  A nice way to hustle even some educated customers who weren’t listening out of an extra 12 cents. Uncle Bruce was really good at math.

I’ll never forget the stories from Bruce’s funeral. Aunt Anne had a great deal of trouble finding a minister to say some nice words about Bruce. Remember, he was the meanest man in the world.

Yet, near the end of the service, eight old men came forward and carried his bier out of the church and later to the grave. Then they left. Uncle Bruce might have been the meanest man in the world, but he was a veteran, and those eight men remembered. For me, I guess it’s always worth remembering that Uncle Bruce was mighty good with a bayonet in the enemy’s trench.

Welcome home, veterans, and thank you for your service.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.





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